Are Governments in a "Leap-Frog Race" on Business and Human Rights?

When we recently contacted over 100 governments with questions on their actions on business and human rights, more than a dozen said that they are considering or developing a National Action Plan, including Brazil, Germany and the US.

When I first started working on business and human rights issues five years ago, scrutiny of government actions to protect against human rights abuses by companies - at home and abroad - was not a strong focus in the field. Since then, we have seen major developments at the UN through the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which reaffirmed the importance of States protecting human rights - in parallel with companies' responsibility to respect them. Yet, there has never been a way to see and compare what governments in all regions around the world are doing on business & human rights issues.

Along with my colleagues at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, I spent the last 6 months doing exactly this. Three and a half years after the UN Human Rights Council's endorsement of the Guiding Principles, only four governments have National Action Plans in which they set out a coherent policy strategy for business and human rights. Two thirds of the governments we spoke to cited challenges in coordinating business and human rights actions across government departments as well as a lack of awareness about the field.

Despite this seemingly slow progress, I am optimistic about the growing momentum among governments around the world to protect human rights from business impacts. A few weeks ago, a Myanmar government representative announced that the country is developing a National Action Plan on business and human rights because it is "trying to leap-frog and catch up with community." When we recently contacted over 100 governments with questions on their actions on business and human rights, more than a dozen said that they are considering or developing a National Action Plan, including Brazil, Germany and the US. See their responses for yourself on the Government Action Platform, which resulted from this endeavour.

Responses to our Action Platform mirrored the uneven levels of activity on business and human rights across regions. While European Union member states were the most responsive to our requests information (71% responded), with Latin America in hot pursuit (55%), response rates in the Middle East & North Africa (30%), Africa (27%), and Asia (22%) were significantly lower. Nearly all of the governments that did not respond to us have also not communicated anywhere publicly about their actions and priorities on business & human rights. Most governments also do not respond to United Nations requests for information on this topic.

Why this disparity? Many factors contribute, but I believe regional coordination is a significant one. The EU has shown leadership on this issue, nudging member states to develop National Action Plans. This has had concrete results, with the United Kingdom being the first government to adopt a National Action Plan in September 2013, followed by Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands.

To a lesser extent, we have seen similar efforts by the Organization of American States, which adopted a declaration urging member states to disseminate and promote the UN Guiding Principles. Latin America also hosted the UN Working Group on business & human rights' first Regional Forum.

On the other hand, regional engagement in Africa and Asia on these issues is just beginning, and is at an even earlier stage in the Middle East.

Although useful in boosting government engagement, regional leadership on its own won't produce the kind of results we need, to see real change. Key economic players (including Canada, China, India and Russia) failed to provide information to our questions, and we had very few responses from companies headquartered in these countries to a survey for our parallel Company Action Platform. Once again, this problem extends beyond our survey and reflects a broader issue of limited communication about steps they are taking, despite serious concerns about business impacts on human rights both domestically and by companies operating abroad.

We need to break this silence and demand meaningful action from governments if we are to effectively protect the vulnerable from negative business impacts. National Action Plans can be a useful first step for governments to clearly align and communicate priorities, but plans must be paired with effective follow-through including continuous dialogue with civil society and affected stakeholders. This will make the difference between a "leap frog race" of commitments and one that delivers change.


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